Barn Owl Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

An introduction to the barn owl, learn more about barn owl facts, including the history of the barn owl, food sources and their habits and habitats.

| December 2003/January 2004

Learn about barn owl facts. Beautiful and mysterious, barn owls also are prolific predators of rodents.

Barn Owl Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

I discovered the owls by accident one day, when I climbed into the hayloft of my grandfather’s old barn to play on the bales. As soon as I’d pulled my 10-year-old body up the ladder, there came a chaos of rustling and flapping in the darkness, and an eerie, raspy hissing. I was back down the ladder in a heartbeat. But a few minutes later, driven by curiosity, I carefully climbed back up, until my eyes were just above the loft floor. There they were, about 10 yards away, side by side on a cluster of hay bales snug up against the wall: a pair of barn owls — or, more accurately, a pair of ghostly pale barn owl faces swaying and bobbing in the dark like small, tethered balloons. Their speckled white-and-russet bodies, barely visible in the dim light, sat atop long, bright-white legs. I could hardly believe my eyes. Chickens with monkey faces, I remember thinking.

Nearly every day that summer, I’d tiptoe into the barn and climb a ladder to the loft’s opposite side, where I could sit atop a stack of bales and study the owls without disturbing them. At dusk, I’d watch from outside as the owls would leave one at a time through an opening near the roof and swoop silently to the pasture below, flying low and slow along a hedgerow before vanishing into the gathering darkness.

I confess I’ve had a fascination with barn owls ever since. As a child, I envisioned them as mysterious masters of the nightspirits on wings. They seemed magical to me. Of course, now I’m grown up and I know the facts about barn owls. And guess what? It turns out I was right all along.

Think Global, Act Owl

The “barn” owl name conjures visions of Americana, but this owl actually is a distinctly international species: The barn owl, Tyto alba, glides the night skies over Australian grasslands, Indian deltas, African savannahs and South American rain forests. According to many ornithologists it is the most widespread land bird on the planet, ;found on every continent except Antarctica. In North America, barn owls are found coast-to-coast from lower Canada southward, except for northern New England and parts of the upper Midwest and Great Plains.

Barn owls belong to a family of about 15 species, most of them Asian, known as Tytonidae. Biologists distinguish between barn owls and “typical” owls, such as great horned and barred owls, which are members of the Strigiformes family. The main difference is as plain as the faces on their heads: barn owls have monkeylike, heart-shaped faces, and typical owls don’t. Barn owls also have distinctly long legs, each with four toes tipped with razor-sharp talons — perfect for snatching a meal from tall grass.

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